Exciting, Thrilling, Exhilarating Brahms from John Lill

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Schubert, Brahms: John Lill (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Douglas Boyd (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 31.01.2014 (SRT)

Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Schubert: Symphony No. 4 “Tragic”
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1


This concert was touted in the RSNO Programme as a celebration of John Lill’s 70th birthday and, sure enough, Lill’s was the finest contribution to the evening.  He is exactly the sort of artist that you can imagine being right at home in Brahms’ epic first piano concerto.  He has the stamina for Brahms’ great displays of technique, and his perpetuum mobile left hand drove the Rondo finale like an engine.  He had plenty of poetry too, however, such as the moment of the piano’s first entry where it tries to pour oil on the troubled waters of the opening tutti, or the beautiful chordal subject that serves as a contrast to the first movement’s anguished main theme.  Hearing him was exciting, often thrilling, and an exhilarating way into this great masterpiece.

If only the orchestra had been allowed to match him in terms of extroversion and energy!  Douglas Boyd kept them firmly on the leash for most of the concerto so that they sounded on their best behaviour when they should have been shaking the audience’s bones.  The opening of the first movement, in particular, needed much more power of attack.  Those jagged opening chords need to hit the listener right in the solar plexus; here they seemed to present themselves politely.  It took Lill’s torrent of octaves at the outset of the development to inject some much needed energy into the orchestral playing, but he continued to lead them rather than to match them.  Astonishingly, the appearance of the main theme played by the piano along at the start of the recapitulation sounded more arresting than when it had been played by the full strings at the very beginning!  Something has surely gone wrong when that is the case.  Boyd’s approach worked better in the second movement, though.  At first it seemed too slow to my ears, but it ended up feeling just about right, with plenty of room for the themes to breathe, and the orchestral restraint that bothered me in the first movement served the contemplative nature of the Adagio much better, though the almost reverential air of hush came rather too close to an air of holy mystery for my liking.

Boyd also chose an unusually large (for our day) orchestra for Schubert’s fourth symphony, but here that restraint served them well because they never overwhelmed the flow of the line.  His approach to the first and third movements struck me as fairly ordinary, but the finale had a wry sparkle to it, and the finest moment came with the main string theme of the Andante, a warm sound without being too fat or indulgent.  Stravinsky’s Symphonies avoided any charge of indulgence, but it was good to have such a warm brass sound generated by the trumpets and trombones, against which the angular lines of the woodwinds could do their episodic work.

Simon Thompson